This feature story on Rice County surveyor Tom Taylor was published in the Northfield News on Sept. 29, 1977. Tom was our predecessor as county surveyor, and operated The Thomas Taylor Company for 31 years. His company became Lake Country Land Professionals in 2006, when we purchased the business from his daughter, Sue Taylor Allen, who continues to work as our researcher and accounting clerk.

SURVEYOR: DETECTIVE, HISTORIAN
BY SCOTT RICHARDSON
Northfield News

(FARIBAULT, Minn. Sept. 29, 1977) —Take the painstaking research of a historian, combine it with the patient, scrupulous field work of an archeologist, add the drama of a good detective story and you have a good idea of what the county surveyor's office puts into locating section corners in Rice County.

Perpetuating land monuments is the primary function of the county surveyor's office, according to Tom Taylor, Rice County surveyor. With land being one of man's most valued financial, and sometimes spiritual, assets, it is extremely important to know where one man's property stops and another's begins.

The county spends some $30,000 a year to have Taylor and his staff make those kinds of determinations. He and his assistant, Dewey VanOrsow, head up the effort from their office at Faribault.

Using old notes from a Nineteenth Century surveyor, R.H.L. Jewett (one of only two surveyors preceding Taylor who left any notes), records from the county highway department and whatever other bearings or scraps of information they can find, Taylor's crew looks for clues to the precise location of section comers.

It can be a time consuming task. Their efforts are far from systematic but Taylor, who has been county surveyor since 1958, said that has always been the case. Most of the work is concentrated around large population centers where most of the selling and· buying activity is, Taylor explained. This includes lakeshore areas as well as cities, he said. Road building is also a frequent source of monument searches, too.

Taylor says that Rice County was not monumented until the middle of the last century when a public land survey was commissioned by the government. Prior to this, Rice County was only Rice County, no townships and no sections. The only claim to land was by virtue of squatters' rights.

Evidence of that first survey exists in only a few cases. The wooden stakes that were used to mark the township corners have long since decayed. Taylor said that research reveals that the old survey crews often planted tree seeds to denote a particular reference point. Unfortunately they planted osage orange trees and, in this part of the country, they never grew to aid those who followed in the crew's wake.

In 1921, a state law required county and the state highway departments to certify the locations of monuments whenever they were building a road. These records have provided Taylor's office with much useful information.

Taylor said he thinks the work is "fun." He has a real appreciation for the history surrounding his task. He often speaks of his surveying predecessors, Jewett and Walt Dokken, as if they were his contemporaries. He's come to know them intimately over the years, while trying to decipher their scribbled, cryptic notations crammed into dog-eared notebooks.

The highway department used granite markers to set corners after 1921, but such obvious markers are not usually the case. Many times, after much digging, the surveyors find old artifacts such as beer bottles, piled stones or even an old gun barrel to mark a section corner. “They used what was available,” VanOrsow said.

When they look in road beds. Taylor's crew uses a front-end loader to dig. It meticulously scrapes off an inch or two of earth at a time while attentive men with shovels in hand keep in watchful eyes for any evidence for a monument. Sometimes only a slight discoloration in the soil marks the spot. On blacktop roads, a backhoe is used to dig in a more confined area.

When they find a monument, or verify a section corner, a cast iron monument with an inscription noting the section and quarter is "set" down into the soil.
Taylor has found that the section lines from the original survey are really quite accurate. “It’s amazing how close they did come and how accurate they were,” he commented, especially when you consider that they surveyed through thick forests with only a compass and a 66-foot chain. He said there is never a measured angle over a degree off.

However, the original work is not without its shortcomings. Taylor confided that some of the sections in the county are not really square as is supposed. Often times, he said, the western and northern tier of sections in the county are either long or short on a side. That is because the surveyors would begin their survey in the right hand corner of the county, or a township, and work west and north. What resulted, Taylor said, is “accumulated error.”

IN PHOTO: Tom Taylor, right, and Dewey VanOrsow pose with section corner monuments that span more than a century. In his right hand, Taylor holds a wooden stake used by the 19th Century surveyors to mark section corners. Resting in his left hand is a granite monument placed by the county highway department since the 1920s. The monument in the foreground, of cast iron, is like those being set today by the county surveyor’s office, when a corner has been verified. ( ©1977 Northfield News. Used with permission)